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Unwanted in Syria, hundreds of Iraqi refugees return home

By Patrick Cockburn

A convoy of more than 800 people on 20 buses waving Iraqi flags left Damascus for Baghdad yesterday.

The passengers are all returning Iraqi refugees and the convoy is being paid for by the Iraqi government which hopes to reverse the exodus of 2.2 million Iraqis from their country over the past four years. Some have already gone home because of a reduction in violence in Baghdad or because tighter visa restrictions in Syria means Iraqis have no choice but to head back.

For the first time, more crowded buses are crossing the Syrian border heading for Baghdad than there are buses leaving Iraq for Damascus. The UN estimates that 1,500 Iraqis are entering their home country every day from Syria and only 500 are leaving.

It is only a small first step. Returning Iraqis are usually going to areas where a single community dominates. Few are going to once mixed areas where they had owned a house which was taken over by the other side. One Sunni who came back from Damascus several months ago said he felt safe in his own district "but I do not dare set foot outside it".

People in Baghdad are divided on whether they are seeing an interlude or something more long-lasting. Al-Qa'ida has largely disappeared from the capital but the Sunni and Shia militias are as powerful as ever. Baghdad is divided into armed camps even if there are often local ceasefires.

The news is genuinely good but the extent to which refugees are returning is being exaggerated by the Iraqi government. It claims that 46,000 refugees came back in October, but the figure includes everybody who crossed the border during the month regardless of reason.

In a much cooler assessment of the ebbs and flows of Iraqi refugees, the UN High Commission for Refugees, which has been trying to alert the world to the extent of the crisis, says that large-scale repatriation is premature. It adds that, while improved security is welcome, "it is not yet time to promote, organise or encourage returns".

Paradoxically, the growing belief in Syria and Jordan that it is safe to return to Iraq may provoke a new problem. With 1.5 million Iraqis in Syria and 500-700,000 in Jordan, these two have borne the brunt of the exodus while the US and Britain have almost entirely closed the door to fleeing Iraqis. Syria and Jordan are now desperate to see Iraqis depart even though many of them still have nowhere safe to go.

Commenting on the Iraqi government claim of a mass return of refugees, a UNHCR spokeswoman, Jennifer Pagonis, said that "presently there is no sign of any large-scale return to Iraq as the security situation in many parts of the country remains volatile and unpredictable".

This may be true at the moment but as Syria and Jordan limit visas, the mass movement of people of the past few years will inevitably go into reverse. Only those with valid medical or business reasons will be allowed to cross the border. Iraqis are often furious at the rudeness with which they are now treated at airports and frontier posts.

Security has become better in Baghdad, but it is fragile and could collapse swiftly if a large bomb was set off in a Shia neighbourhood. Hatreds are as deep as ever. Eleven members of the family of a journalist living in Amman were killed by gunmen in one Mehdi Army militia stronghold last weekend.

The reduction in violence may not be the main reason for the return. A UNHCR survey of 110 families crossing the border showed that 46 per cent said they could not afford to stay in Syria, 25 per cent could not acquire visas and only 14 per cent said their return was because of better security.

It will be many years before Shia and Sunni Muslims will be able to live together again in streets where the worst fighting occurred. "There is a complete lack of trust," said Samir Mohammed, a Sunni teacher, speaking of Jihad district. "Many Sunni remember that their Shia neighbours stood by and let them be driven out."

Shias have the same bitter memories of being evicted from Sunni districts.

In addition to the 2.2 million Iraqi refugees who have fled to other countries, a further 2.4 million are displaced inside Iraq. Of these, one million, mostly Kurds, were compelled to leave their homes under Saddam Hussein before 2003, but 1.2 million fled after the bombing of the Shia shrine in Samarra in February 2005. People are still leaving their homes inside Iraq and 28,000 more people were displaced in October.

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